How Transport for London keeps the capital’s sports fans moving

When it comes to sport, London is a special city. Indeed, each year it hosts hundreds of football, cricket and rugby matches, as well as Wimbledon, athletics events and the odd Rugby World Cup or Olympics.

With each of these events attracting thousands of fans from all over the country and the world, Transport for London (TfL) is primarily responsible for transferring the masses to and from numerous sporting locations.

But, with the potential for chaos and disruption, how does the travel authority prepare to make sure everything always runs smoothly?

TfL’s tactical plans

“There are an awful lot of sporting events in London,” says Stuart Reid, programme director for travel demand management at TfL. “We have 12 league football teams in the capital and they bring their own challenges. You also have cricket matches and the once a year events like Wimbledon and the London Marathon.

“What’s good about stadium events compared to ones on the road like marathons is that we know roughly how many fans will be attending. And then we primarily work with the promoters and police to try to establish where most people will be arriving from. It’s a multi-agency approach.

“We find the more we accommodate an event, the more successful travel becomes and the more the sporting traveller knows what to expect. That makes things a whole lot easier.”

“There are operational plans that we can enact,” says Nick Owen, head of control centre operations at TfL.

“But it does take a lot of thinking. London Underground and bus services are extended if they need to be. And roads will be closed. All, of course, depending on how many people are expected to be travelling and the event.

“For example, with an event like Wimbledon we start planning for the following year’s tournament the day after it finishes. We would have a debrief on what’s gone well and what hasn’t gone well, and then we would plan how to improve our approach and services the next time.

“The key for us is to have as much notice and prior knowledge of the event so we can tailor the works on the network, whether that be above or below the ground.”

Twickenham scrum

With most fixtures scheduled in the summer and the season starting in August, preparing for football games is a rather simple and repetitive task with the help of clubs and police.

However, it’s the one-off events like the Olympics in 2012, which really stretch TfL’s resources.

These require the highest amount of planning and cooperation. As Reid and Owen point out, hosting the recent Rugby World Cup in 2015, demanded years of preparation.

“The opening ceremony at Twickenham was the first full capacity event there in the evening,” says Owen. “Fans were flocking to the stadium, but there was the added pressure of the normal Friday rush hour and people trying to come out of London, so that all had to be navigated.

“It’s quite a contrast. With football, for example, the fixtures are released in June and we can cope with that relatively easily. But the Rugby World Cup takes many months, if not, years of planning.”

“The Rugby World Cup used existing stadiums, but matches were played in locations they wouldn’t normally be, all at different times, so we had an overlay on our networks, “says Reid.

“At Twickenham the stadium operation was revved up. Parking around the stadium was reduced so we had to lay on shuttle buses to the station. That meant the A road next to Twickenham had to be shut, which wouldn’t happen for normal rugby matches. That’s where all the different planning comes in.”

Bigger stadia

With football clubs in the capital all gradually expanding their stadium capacities, the pressure on underground, overground and bus services continues to increase.

Indeed, just in the last 12 years, Arsenal and West Ham have moved to bigger grounds, withTottenham Hotspur and Chelsea planning to follow. So are TfL worried as thousands more fans descend on their services?

“It’s not as big a problem as you would think,” says Reid. “It may seem like a cliché at this point but ultimately it comes down to preparation.

“The clubs help out with stewarding. When Arsenal are playing, we have more staff on the ground at Highbury & Islington station. And at Wembley Park the same when England are playing.

“With White Hart Lane’s expansion, undoubtedly there will be significant rise in demand for services in that location, and it’s something we are working with the club and other agencies on how best to deal with it. It’s taking time but we’re planning for it.”

Benefits to London

Even though hosting sporting events takes meticulous planning and puts a strain on resources, it would be easy to forget that sports fans using transport services only make up a tiny percentage of the total number of users each year.

Hence, as TfL is keen to point out, the priority is always to keep the rest of the city moving and protect the everyday traveller from any inconvenience events can cause.

“Thirty million journeys are made on a typical day in London,” says Reid. “Therefore, it’s important to remember that the number of people you have to manage going about their normal day outstrips the number of people going to a sporting event.

“We’re constantly thinking about how we can keep traffic moving. How we can keep buses running amid a road event. You’ve got to make sure, the rest of the public are least affected as possible and can go wherever they need to go.”

Speaking to Reid and Owen their modesty is commendable. However, it’s clear that sporting occasions couldn’t run as efficiently as they do in the capital, if it wasn’t for the work TfL puts in behind the scenes.

Every year, London’s booming population is making it harder and harder to maintain a good service, but, admirably, those at TfL still recognise the advantages of London hosting sports events and are committed to helping them run smoothly.

“There’s a challenge we face every day,” concludes Owen. “Increased travel demand due to the growing population. That’s why TfL is  investing heavily so we can deal with these pressures. But I don’t think it’s getting harder to accommodate sporting events.

“We absolutely understand the benefits of those events to the economy, to the local councils. The World Athletics Championship, for example, contributed £107 million to the London economy. That just shows how important they are to this city.

“That’s why me and Stuart and the rest of the team spend so much time trying to accommodate these events. They are a part of what makes London a global city.”

Images courtesy of TfL